Archive for July, 2010

Things of the Past

FDRThe Internet Isn’t the Same

In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt made the long, dangerous journey to Tehran for a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. En route he stopped over in Cairo to huddle with the British Prime Minister and Chiang Kai-shek. The president also did a little sightseeing as he noted in a letter to his long-time assistant Grace Tully.

FDR wrote that he had made friends with the Sphinx and, like every president before or since, concluded that “Congress should know her.”

The lighthearted, intimate letter to Tully is among a new treasure of letters to, from, and about a president that is the subject of a massive collection of books, but about whom we seem to only want to know more. The National Archives gained possession of the 5,000 rarely or never before seen letters, notes and scraps and they most surely will add to the already rich trove of material about the president recently voted the nation’s greatest by a group of more than 200 scholars of the presidency.

“You actually see F.D.R.’s thought process,” Robert W. Clark, supervisory archivist of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., told the New York Times.

“(FDR) never wrote memoirs, he wasn’t a reflective kind of guy. This shows him instinctively making decisions that he knew would be for the betterment of the country and the world,” Clark said.

Roosevelt conceived of the modern presidential library and the building and grounds at his home along the Hudson north of New York City is a national treasure. FDR, even without his own diary or memoirs, knew the value of keeping and using an archive. His notion was that all of his principal aides would house their papers at Hyde Park and many did. The collection of materials squirreled away by FDR’s devoted assistant Grace Tully will add to the richness of what has long existed.

The materials include a letter from Benito Mussolini, pre-war musings from Joseph P. Kennedy about the war in Europe and the documents that coordinated the logistics for Roosevelt’s meeting on the day he died with his one-time mistress.

You wonder what the Internet age is doing to this kind of material. Actually, I don’t wonder, I know. The nature of the nation’s historical record has already changed dramatically. Politicians don’t write letters any more. Practically speaking you can’t get a piece of mail into the White House or a Congressional office. All business is done on the phone or my email.

Still, one hopes that George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s version of Grace Tully – every politician worth a darn has a Grace Tully – is slipping a few choice notes and letters into a “confidential file” that one day scholars and the rest of us will get to see.

As the FDR archivist says, such things show us how leaders reason, worry and joke. The dry, factual record is only part of the story. History – and our country’s story – lives in the small, intimate details.

The Understudy

batistaThe Anti-Strasburg

Everyone showed up last night at National’s Park in the center of our political universe – Washington, D.C. – to see a star perform, but the understudy got the call and ended up taking the bows.

Talk about a no-win situation. It was like the hot and sticky sell-out crowd of 40,043 bought standing room only tickets to see a Broadway show with a big name star. Instead they got the kid from summer stock. The fickle faithful were expecting something magical; think Yul Brenner strutting his stuff in The King and I. Instead they got a skinny, ex-Mariner who has rarely strutted much stuff and has often had to slink off the stage under fire.

Its not very generous to boo a guy, as many of the Stephen Strasburg-crazed D.C. baseball fans did last night, who scattered three singles, struck out six and didn’t gave up a run in five innings, while shutting down the division leader. Understudies get no respect.

When Miguel Batista took the mound for his on-field warm-up last night, the guy next to me said what 40,042 other baseball fans were thinking: “where’s the kid, where’s Strasburg?”

Strasburg, who has been the talk of baseball since joining the Nationals earlier this season “couldn’t get loose” before the game and the general manager nixed his appearance. His understudy was ready.

Batista, having gotten the call fifteen minutes before game time, obviously knew his part.

“Imagine, if you go there to see Miss Universe,” he said after the game, “and you end up having Miss Iowa, you might get those kind of boos. But it’s OK. They had to understand that as an organization we have to make sure the kid is fine.”

Miss Iowa showed some class, got a 3-0 win and, after an MRI, it looks like the kid is fine.

One of the great things about sports is the “on any given day” factor. Last night was Miguel Batista’s given day. I admit to being one of the 40,000-plus who panted into the ball yard last night yearning to marvel at the 98 mile an hour fastball and the devastating curve of the young guy who has captivated the baseball world since the Nationals brought him up to the show earlier this season. Instead, I witnessed something even better, a 39-year old pitcher in the twilight of a mediocre career rising to the moment.

Strasburg has been getting more ink – and hype – inside the Beltway than a ban on earmarks and maybe he deserves it. (The Beltway’s “must read” political writer, Mike Allen of Politico, featured the Strasburg Scratch in his morning email along with the news that White House stars Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod where among the disappointed 40,043.)

But last night, at least for a few precious innings, a guy who hadn’t won a game since George W. Bush was in the White House made a statement.

I know, I know, the last minute substitution was no doubt a prudent precaution to protect a franchise player with a long career ahead of him, but who can’t get loose in 90 degree weather with 85 percent humidity? That guy next to me, even with a couple of beers, could have gone three innings in that heat. With water – or was it beer – dripping down my forehead, I had to wonder if a 17-year-old Bob Feller ever had trouble “getting loose?”

The 40,043 were reminded last night that “baseball is a business” and there is no effective liability reform that can protect against a young and sore arm. Still, I hope someone bought Miguel Batista a steak and a beer after the game. I have a feeling he was pretty lose last night.

The understudy pulled it off. And, you gotta love that.

I Am Love

i_am_love_posterHere’s a Movie for the Summer

Family, food, fabrics, footwear. Set it all in Milan in a fabulous villa – the Medicis would kill (maybe they did) for this place – and stir in an outstanding performance by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and you got yourself a summer feast. It’s called I Am Love and it is one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while.

Oh, I forgot to mention the love affairs, corporate intrigue and shocking death.

The Recchi family is wealthy – boy are they wealthy – and mother Emma (the Swinton role) is obviously the stabilizing glue in this group. Still Emma, even though she is the core of the family, seems strangely remote. It could be because she is a Russian-born transplant brought to one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, and married into a family with more money than good sense. She says at one point that when she came to Italy she ceased being Russian. Nonetheless, she’s made her peace, it seems, with her bloodless businessman of a husband and presides over the family household staff and fabulous dinners with elegance and grace. Until.

Until, that is, she falls completely, and with shocking speed, under the spell of her son’s close friend, an ambitious chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant. It’s hard to believe that a scene with a young cook showing an older woman how to use a torch to brown food could be, well, erotic, but you need to see it.

Before you can say “three minute egg” Emma has tossed her Ferragamo’s and shed her classy outfits to roll around in the grass with Antonio.

The New York Times review said: “By the end of this often soaringly beautiful melodrama, which closes with a funeral, Emma’s face will have crumpled into a ruin. But it will also be fully alive, having been granted, like Pygmalion’s statue, the breath of life.”

The film is in Italian and Russian and should further establish Tilda Swinton as a major, major talent. The love scenes and party scenes are pretty good and the food wasn’t bad, either.

Hoarding Cash

moneySo Much Cash, So Little Investment

You don’t have to read the Wall Street Journal every day to know that the economy is barely struggling out of the Great Recession. Unemployment bumps along at just under 10 percent and some in the Congress debate whether extending benefits to the job seekers might actually encourage the out of work to stay on the sofa. In Idaho, the governor tells state employees that they best keep their expectations in check. Better times aren’t around the corner anytime soon.

Yet, somebody is making out in this rotten economy. The federal pay czar – yes, we have one – recently called the $2 billion the biggest of the big banks paid in bonuses in late 2008 and 2009 “ill-advised,” but all he could do was hold a news conference and point that out. Reforming big bank incentives seems not to be in the cards. These same banks, most recipients of TARP funds we all provided, are still reluctant to lend significant money, but they seem to have no reluctance to make money, stack it up in the vault and hand it out in multi-million dollar bonuses.

Meantime, its estimated that Fortune 500 companies are sitting on something north of $1.8 trillion in cash. As Bruce Stokes pointed out recently in a piece for the National Journal, only corporate America has the financial wherewithal to get the fragile economy moving, yet the money seems to be going under the mattress and into obscene bonuses rather than into jobs, R&D and acquisitions. Stokes suggests taxing excess corporate cash. I’ll not hold my breath on that idea, but there is ample evidence the cash hoarding is hurting the recovery.

Economic analysts Yves Smith and Rob Parenteau contend part of the reason for the corporate cash accumulation is the short-term nature of corporate thinking. CEO’s and their boards have become obsessed with quarterly earnings reports and the fact that Wall Street analysts and big investors reward or punish those who hit or miss those every three month targets.

“To show short-term profits,” Smith and Parenteau wrote recently in a New York Times piece, “they avoid investing in future growth. To develop new products, buy new equipment or expand geographically, an enterprise has to spend money — on marketing research, product design, prototype development, legal expenses associated with patents, lining up contractors and so on.”

My thoughtful Montana friend, Pat Williams, the former Congressman who now teaches at the University of Montana, had a great piece last week that got me thinking about what only business can do in tough times like these.

Pat, recalling a tough 1950′s economic downturn when he was just a kid, remembered that his mother and dad actually made the decision to invest into a down economy on the main street of Butte, Montana.

In a piece that appeared in a number of Montana papers, Pat wrote: “I remember Dad telling our customers and insisting to his fellow small business friends along Park Street, ‘Now is the right time.’ His logic was that building contractors needed work, Butte’s people wanted jobs, the appearance of downtown was important, and, he insisted, interest rates were only going up. He firmly believed that one invested in one’s self by investing in your customers and your city.”

It may be the toughest thing to do in a tough economy to make an investment decision. The safe path is to keep the cash in the bank, avoid risk and ride it out. History rewards the successful risk taker, but then again why risk it?

The economy needs a positive jolt. It’s time to start investing for the long-term. Its time for a glass half full attitude. Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Hewlett and Packard did not built empires by not investing in their customers and cities.

When Pat Williams’ folks invested in the remodel of their Butte restaurant back in the 1950′s a curious thing happened.

“Following the completion of that new, expensive store front,” Williams wrote, “we had a significant increase in customers saying thanks by enjoying a steak dinner, buying a box of candy, or simply throwing a dime on the counter for an extra cup of coffee.”

Funny thing how the economy responds to the notion that things really can get better. Maybe it really is less about economic theory and more about human nature. It is time to take some measured risk. Goodness knows, there is a lot of room on the upside.

Dan Schorr

schorrGiving Them What They Need

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the “days of black and white TV.”

Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950′s to the 1970′s – an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr - is what I really miss.

There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager’s suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know?

Dan Schorr was clearly in the “need to know” camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade.

I was never a particular fan of Schorr’s commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man – or a reporter – of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr’s long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff.

As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, “Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn’t even have to make a profit.”

I’ve always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn’t ever called a “news program” or a “news show.” News was delivered in the form of a “broadcast,” a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball.

There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today’s hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O’Reillys, couldn’t carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros.

Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.

Mad Men

Mad MenI Know What I’ll Be Doing Sunday Night

I admit I have been a late adopter of the wondrous world of Mad Men, the AMC Sunday night show that has done so much for the early 1960′s. Some of my colleagues started telling me about how great the show was and I finally went back to the first three seasons, thanks to NetFlix, and got completely hooked. The series starts its fourth season Sunday and by all accounts it continues to be correctly called the “best thing on TV.”

For the uninitiated, like me until a few months ago, the storyline unfolds in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960′s. A superb ensemble cast is pitch perfect in portraying the intelligence, competitiveness, class and crassness of beautiful people without a lot of balance, at times, but with plenty of booze all the time.

As Slate notes about the new season: “Ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) raided the crumbling Sterling Cooper for its top talent and set out to launch Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fledgling enterprise that should be fertile ground for the show’s strengths: office politics, office romance, and the socio-politico-historical hoo-hah Matthew Weiner brilliantly wrings from each Draper pitch.”

The series is particularly good at capturing the details of the smoking 60′s; secretaries with big hair and big – er, typewriters. The ad men are slicked back, three-Martini guys who engage in verbal towel snapping when they aren’t eyeing up the “new girl” in the secretarial pool.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz praises the cast as, “smart, they’re self-seeking, they’re recognizably human. They’re also overweight or undertailored, dowdy, faintly unkempt—but for John Slattery’s Roger Sterling and Mr. Hamm. It’s never less than enthralling to watch this cast at work, not least Vincent Kartheiser as Peter Campbell—a seemingly slick operator whose every urgent flicker of the eye suggests something deeper.”

No one can call January Jones’ character, the ice queen Betty Draper, “faintly unkempt.” If anything you keep waiting for one of those blond hairs to slip out of place, knowing it might cause a breakdown. Jones plays her role – now Draper’s ex-wife – so well you think that any moment the volcano inside Betty is about to blow.

I have no idea what life was like in a Manhattan ad firm in 1964, which is where we pick up these folks in the new season, but I’m betting the series makers have it pretty close to right. Double martinis, big marketing budgets, demanding clients, tight dresses and Mad Men on the make. This is good, really good, television.